Tony LaRussa, background, who was in Boston for the ALCS to support good friend Jim Leyland, front, says he has no interest in managing again. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Detroit — The phone call was made to discuss Jim Leyland.
As Tony La Russa said, “I love talking about Jim.”
But the question, no matter how many times he has had to answer it the last couple years, has to be asked.
Tony, are you absolutely done managing?
“Absolutely,” he told The Detroit News this morning. “I get asked (by the media) whenever a job comes open, but I think everybody understands now.”
La Russa, 69, who won three world championships — including his last with the Cardinals in 2011, his final season — currently holds a position with the Major League Baseball commissioner’s office.
Before that, shortly after retiring following the Cardinals’ magical run in 2011, he spent time with the Tigers in spring training, shadowing general manager Dave Dombrowski.
There’s clearly a relationship with the Tigers, who for the first time since October 2005 are searching for a manager. La Russa, though, remains adamant: He’s not a candidate.
“The fact somebody might remember you is a compliment,” he said, adding it keeps him from feeling like a has-been. “But I’ve really made it clear. I’d like to get back into the competition, just not on the field.”
Now that that’s out of the way, back to Leyland.
“Yes and no,” La Russa said, when asked if he was caught off guard when Leyland told him, in a conversation about a month ago, that he was set to walk away. “Yes, because I know he was really into the competition, and no, because every year, when you get to a certain stage, you’re grinding, the end is in sight. So I was surprised, but not shocked.”
Leyland, 68, and La Russa make up one of the great friendships in baseball. They’ve known each other since 1979, when they were managing against each other in the minor leagues — Leyland with Evansville in the Tigers’ system, and La Russa with Iowa in the White Sox system.
“You’d get to the park early,” La Russa said. “We started talking.”
That same year, La Russa got the White Sox job, and, in 1982, he gave Leyland his first break in the major leagues by naming him his third-base coach.
Four years later, Leyland got the Pirates managing gig, and he and La Russa have gone on to combine for four world championships and 4,497 victories. Both soon could wind up together again in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
La Russa is a slam dunk, who could get elected as early as December. Leyland is a more up-in-the-air case — though not according to La Russa, who said, “I think he is in the same exact mold as Sparky Anderson, Earl Weaver and Tom Lasorda.”
“I thought about that recently,” La Russa said, when asked to define Leyland’s legacy. “He’s like those guys — tremendous experience as players, and game knowledge that translated into managing at a championship level. I put him with those guys because of their personalities, they’re really ambassadors for baseball. Their story-telling was entertaining and engaging. I think Jim has had the same impact.
“Anybody that’s been around Jim on a personal level knows he’s got a great sense of humor, he can sing, he’s got that love of the game.
“He’s got a beautiful heart.”
La Russa and Leyland actually got the rare opportunity, in 2006, to manage against each other in the World Series.
It wasn’t all that welcome of an opportunity, by the way. Both have long believed the focus should stay on the players — and on the field. So, prior to the World Series, they got together and decided neither one of them would engage in reporters’ questions that threatened to make their friendship the story.
“We thought because of our friendship, there might be a story or two or four or 10,” La Russa said. “We wanted to avoid it. We both agreed.”
Looking back, though, it was a special moment, though a tough one, too.
The Cardinals won, the Tigers lost — and La Russa hated seeing his good friend in pain.
“It’s a very difficult thing,” La Russa said. “You don’t want your friends being unhappy. Going against each other, that’s a real tug at your emotions.”
La Russa won another championship in 2011, and Leyland had another shot in the 2012 World Series — which the Tigers lost to the Giants.
The Tigers had another great shot to do it this year, but lost a thrilling six-game American League Championship Series to the Red Sox. Leyland, during his farewell news conference Monday, said he felt like the Tigers let that series get away.
La Russa, by the way, makes no secret who he was rooting for — knowing what he knew.
“I was pulling for him a lot. People at MLB saw it and understood. They didn’t know (he was retiring), but I knew,” La Russa said. “I was pulling for him. If you can’t pull for your friends, then there’s something wrong.”
There was nothing wrong, in La Russa’s mind, about Leyland’s sendoff Monday.
La Russa, of course, was watching.
“He had fun, he got emotional,” La Russa said. “I thought he was perfect.”